Cincinnati Opera takes outdoors its fascination with 'Tosca,' this time with COVID constraints


It's a signal of Cincinnati Opera's resourcefulness and unstoppable focus on essentials that it can present Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca" in an uninterrupted 90-minute span, with a large audience socially distanced outdoors at a site some 16 miles distant from its traditional downtown stomping grounds.

Cavaradossi as portrait painter.
The last time the company presented the work, a production conventionally presented indoors reveled in splendor and detail relevant to the history-saturated story. At Summit Park, however, the action had to be shoehorned downstage in front of the orchestra, with cameras focused on its main points so that the visual basics could be concentrated on the singers and shared on stage-side screens, on which the libretto text in English translation could be readily followed. Lighting design and a severe assortment of properties have to create much of the illusion, with costuming completing the task.

In a context of admiration for the technical and artistic achievements of this show, which I saw Friday night, it's incumbent upon me to point to the compromises. Under the circumstances, perhaps all of them can be defended, though I'm not sure all were necessary sacrifices. Memories are probably fresh among many loyal patrons of CO's 2016 presentation of Puccini's gripping melodrama, and the opera is generally well-known. Puzzles might well remain, however, in processing the dramatic advance and coming to grips with just what manner of "Tosca" we are getting.

An opening toward acceptable cuts and tweaking the story's meaning can be seen in the structural clutter of the first act, which vexed the opera's creators at the turn of the 20th century. A way had to be found to reduce the plot of the engendering Victorien Sardou play, stuffed as it is with a stage-worthy interpretation of Rome's historical turmoil in the Napoleonic era,  to just a sturdy thread of political intrigue. Both Puccini and his librettists  knew that the story of a tempestuous diva and her fraught love for a nobleman of leftist and painterly leanings had to allow the composer to indulge his lyrical gifts. The musical stage has never tolerated granular renderings of history, from "The Coronation of Poppea" to "Hamilton."

Some of the droll, fussy mutterings of the Sacristan (Samuel Smith) about the avocational

Phillip Bullock as Angelotti, the disappearing fugitive

painter Cavaradossi (Russell Thomas) who expects a lot of him seem to have been cut. But the main first-act sacrifice was to reduce the fugitive radical Angelotti  (Phillip Bullock) to a walk-on (or, better, a run-on) role. After he bursts onto the scene seeking refuge, he becomes part of this production's excision of the opera's political struggles, in which republicans allied with the invading French vie with a royalist faction for control of Rome. A unified Italy lies far in the future of the precisely placed action (1800).

As we anticipate crucial dialogue between Angelotti and his aristocratic ally Mario Cavaradossi, all of a sudden we get instead the villainous police chief Scarpia (Quinn Kelsey) coming into the church for reasons that are clearer in the original. He says that Tosca must not see him there, while we're thinking she has just left after a contentious dialogue with her art-focused lover. But she's back again, as she truly is in the opera, with no clear motivation for her return.

The effect of this is to make all the more central a kind of love triangle, though to what extent Scarpia is in love with Tosca is a fascinating question.

But the upshot is that we root for the diva and her true lover to find happiness in a way that defeats Scarpia's intense focus on her. Ana Maria Martinez played the Roman celebrity singer with authentic fire and pathos. I'm not sure what a statue of the Madonna is doing in Scarpia's living quarters, but she plausibly addressed her major aria, "Vissi d'arte," to it as she justifies her life and stalls for time to save her lover. As the character sets aside her habitual jealousy to scheme on behalf of Mario, Martinez assumed the stature of sturdy heroine that the opera requires. 

Thomas took command of his role early on, pouring his ample tenor into "Recondita armonia," the aristocratic painter's  praise of art's way of blending different impressions and observations into a unified result. His delivery was on the loud side, but much of the necessary amplification throughout the show verged on the stentorian. In the hero's case, there could be no doubt that here was a true tenore di forza. Conductor Xian Zhang managed to keep a handle on the inevitable balance problems that come up through amplified outdoor opera, with a particular challenge in the massed act-one finale.

Floria instructs Mario in how to play dead.

Mario's playful side, especially when he tries to calm Tosca down a little later, seemed a little too muted. But Thomas' intensity about anything this character deeply believes in always came through. Director Jose Maria Condemi's decision to have him launch his poignant third-act aria, "E lucevan le stelle," lying on a platform floor seemed questionable, but I guess it was to emphasize that the hero, even while reflecting on happier times, is thoroughly exhausted by all he has been through.

With Scarpia's detective work in fierce pursuit of the escapee largely omitted, his obsession with Tosca and his stature as police chief serving the monarchy becomes a secondary issue. He moves straight toward arousing Tosca's jealous temperament by presenting evidence that Mario's painting hobby is a cover for his pursuit of other women.

On Twitter, I recently came across an interview with a leading baritone who was delighted to have a chance to reinterpret Scarpia as a man genuinely attracted to Floria Tosca and frustrated that another man has a prior claim to her love. Thus conceived, he's a more complex character than is often assumed, one whose cruelty has been forced upon him by having his romantic plans thwarted.

Tosca and Scarpia grapple: There's no love either way in that grip.

I would be skeptical of such an interpretation, because a genuine Scarpia needs to be the demon that Tosca calls him in the second act. Either that or he's possessed by a demon, because no singer attempting the role should bother to chafe against playing the pure type of villain. Kelsey's portrayal hued to that model, though his Scarpia didn't seem full-bloodedly obsessed with conquering Tosca while flirting with her at the church. More rancid gusto oozes from him when he's in his element, a well-appointed apartment in the Palazzo Farnese with an adjacent torture chamber.

Scarpia's anxiety about how well he's carrying out his police duties recedes to minor fretting in this production. In the volatile political climate, a job performance review is always imminent. But this Scarpia doesn't seem cruel out of his function as a loyal time-server. He's no precursor to  Adolf Eichmann, harshly operating from a sense of duty, as another notable villain, Don Pizarro, does running the prison in "Fidelio." The 2016 CO production of that opera, while riskily updated, had a nice touch in its huge bank of file cabinets behind Pizarro's desk.  This is bureaucratic evil. (Russell Thomas, by the way, made a strong impression as another hero, Florestan, in that show.)

A man under demonic control pushes all other influences to the side, however, a fact substantiated by Angus Fletcher's fascinating study "Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode." He may not even appear to be under conscious control, but "by some foreign force, something outside the sphere of his own ego," in Fletcher's words.  Interpreting this opera's villain allegorically, then, offers some clue to its enduring power and the way "Tosca" hangs together despite its somewhat unresolved imbalance of a fraught love story enmeshed in political intrigue. 

That's because Scarpia's demon exerts control on the two other main characters who are by no means demonic: Cavaradossi and Tosca, and they are partly allegorical as a result, standing for the enduring symbolic magic of love-death. We don't need to set Scarpia alongside Iago, even though the police chief explicitly does so. Scarpia is narrower in intelligence and freedom of action, and the story he fatally shapes benefits from seeing him as a man who "compartmentalizes function" (Fletcher again). His main function is to pursue his sex-and-power obsession to its fatal conclusion. He mimics extreme personal control, but he is really a demonic agent.

As the poet Anne Sexton says in transforming the fairy story of Rumpelstiltskin, a classic demonic figure: "No, I am not the law in your mind / the grandfather of watchfulness. / I am the law of your members, the kindred of blackness and impulse." So among other aspects of its version, Cincinnati Opera's "Tosca" sets the demonic in the center of the vivid impression the opera has made for over a century. It's too bad this production reduces the world outside these three characters so drastically, but at length that choice doesn't distort this enduring classic. 

[Photos by Philip Groshong]





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